Whey Protein v Whole Foods

The supplement industry is huge, and by far the most popular those that lift regularly is whey protein. The reason is pretty straightforward – you need protein to build muscle, and whey protein offers a relatively cheap and straightforward way of hitting your daily intake target.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in fitness will have been bombarded with adverts from supplement companies, all promoting various products that promise to aid muscle gain and increase fat loss. Whey protein is typically at the forefront of the supplement industry, and with good cause – it does what it does very well and it’s an extremely popular product.

If you’re monitoring your macronutrient intake and following the IIFYM protocol, it can be tempting to look at the efficiency and think ‘should I get most of my protein intake from whey’?  On paper, it looks ideal – have a couple of shakes in water and you’ve hit your protein target in relatively few calories, leaving you to snack on delicious carbs and fat all day!

The reality is a little more complex than that, and weighing the benefits of whole foods v whey protein is important when it comes to optimising your diet. Both have their benefits and complement each other extremely well, so there’s no reason for the two to be mutually exclusive, but here we’ll go into a little more detail about the use of protein supplements and how they compare with protein-rich foods.

The Benefits of Whey Protein

Many nutritional experts (quite often those employed by supplement companies!) will highlight the numerous advantages of whey protein over whole foods as a protein source. One aspect which is typically cited is the quality of the protein and how much is absorbed by the body. This is known as the biological value (BV), and if the protein has a BV of 100 it means all of the protein is absorbed with none being wasted.

Whey protein will generally have a BV at or around 100, making it (by this measure) an excellent protein source. Looking at whole foods as a comparison, eggs have the highest BV score of 100, while beans typically have a BV of around 49.

While this is worth keeping in mind, the importance of BV is often overstated. If you’re getting enough protein throughout the day, and doing so on a regular basis, the BV of your protein source is largely unimportant. It does make whey an ideal choice post-workout when it comes to fuelling your recovery, but it’s unlikely to fuel additional growth over consistently high protein intake.

There are various other benefits to protein shakes. They have a high level of BCAA’s, which when combined with quality protein help with muscle building and recovery, and it may also help to help boost your metabolism.

The Benefits of Whole Foods

The downside is that by skipping certain types of food you’re depriving your body of the overall nutritional value provided by whole foods. Even removing muscle building and workout recovery from the equation, your body needs a variety of nutrients to perform properly which won’t be provided by whey protein alone.

Let’s look at one of the classic high protein foods as an example – eggs. Alongside their high protein count, eggs contain healthy fats, have been shown to have a positive effect on HDL cholesterol levels, and are packed with vitamins and amino acids.

We’ve evolved to thrive on a balanced diet of plant and animal food sources, and our body performs at its best when we provide it with a constant supply of nutrient-dense real food. Creating your meals around a quality protein source will help provide the body with everything it needs to start building muscle, as well as providing your body with the nutrition it needs to perform at a high level.

Use Supplements as Supplements

When it comes down to a straight shoot out, it’s pretty obvious that whole foods are the way to go. However, whey protein supplements are intended to provide the additional protein required to build muscle more effectively, and can form an important part of your diet when used alongside whole foods.

Having a shake or two a day to help meet your protein target isn’t a bad thing, and in fact, it’s incredibly useful. Having tried to force down dry chicken after a workout on numerous occasions, the simple joy of a quick strawberry protein shake cannot be overstated! Just be sensible and use supplements as part of a well-balanced diet and you’ll see the full benefit.

As a convenient, cheap and effective source of protein, it’s hard to argue against the use of whey protein. But it’s not the best idea to use it as your solitary source, as you’ll be missing out on the huge range of benefits provided by whole foods and a nutritionally balanced diet. As always, moderation is the key!


  • Updated May 26, 2020
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